Stones, Clones, and Muffs - The Electro-Harmonix Story

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Stones, Clones, and Muffs

The Electro-Harmonix Story



By Ronald C. Neely II
continuously updated

 

The Electro-Harmonix Company was founded in 1968 by Mike Matthews. Until its demise in 1985, it was one of the biggest manufacturers of effect units for guitar. It was recently ressurected by Mike Matthews and is once again creating its own special niche in the music world.

Contents


Introduction

    The Electro-Harmonix (EH) company was one of America's most innovative musical accessories manufacturers. Founded in 1968 by Mike Matthews with $1,000 cash and a $5,000 bank loan, the company grossed annual sales of 5 million dollars by 1978. EH survived opposition from labor unions and others, but finally succumbed in 1985, only to re-emerge in the 1990's under the New Sensor/Sovtek name. The EH name has since reappeared on a line of reissued effects while the original models have become collectors items.

The Founding

    Mike Matthews, the founder of Electro-Harmonix, had a rich and varied history. A native of Brooklyn, he attended Cornell University and graduated with an MBA and a BSEE. Ten years later he received notice that his five year BSEE had been commuted to a Master's. While at Cornell, he promoted rock 'n' roll shows and also sat in on keyboards with the Isley Brothers; at one point he was asked to join the band full-time, but he declined in order to finish school. Upon graduation he worked three years as a computer salesman for IBM.
    Mike had tried marketing an Alpha Neon Resonator which relaxed the brain and promoted creativity by use of small flickering bulbs, but the product sold poorly. Later on, he built Foxey Lady fuzztones, which bore more resemblance to his later Big Muff Pi distortion in both appearance and construction, for the Guild guitar company. Now he was ready to start his own company.

    In October of 1968, Mike Matthews started the EH company and introduced his first product,  the Axis fuzz.  Essentially the same unit as the Foxey Lady pedal he sold to Guild, the Axis gave Mike a good start and paved the way for his next product: the LPB-1 Linear Power Booster. No other company at that time was selling a comparable product and this became the first in a long line of completety original products. Along with the LPB-1 and its companion, the LPB-2, was a line of filters that included the Screaming Bird Treble Booster and the Mole Bass Booster.

    With the new company came the famous EH logo, which has been variously described as a "ram's head" or "lamb's head." According to Mike, the logo was designed by a female artist and "I liked it so I just used it as a logo, something to attract attention to the ad. It didn't have any special meaning other than I thought it was distinctive." (Neely)

    Lesser known products from EH were the ones designed for the stereo enthusiast: the Linear Stereo Boosters LSB-1 and LSB-2, the Stereo Tone Expander, and the Stereo Pulse Modulator - which, according to sales literature, was designed to "literally get you stoned electronically." In the late 70's the Ambitron, which converted a mono signal to stereo and was capable of being used on guitar as well, was introduced but quickly disappeared.

    While displaying his LPB-1 at the NAMM (National Association of Music Manufacturers) show in 1968, Mike unwittingly changed the design of amplifiers by demonstrating to everyone that pre-amps could be placed in series to create distortion. One of the first to realize that this effect could be built into an amplifier was Hartley Peavey of the Peavey Electronics Corporation, who was also at the show and purchased an LPB-1 to learn its secret (Howse 15). Not long afterward, many manufacturers were building the cascading pre-amp design into their amplifiers.


The 1970's

    In the early '70's, Electro-Harmonix released what has become its trademark product, the Big Muff Pi distortion. The Big Muff Pi became popular with guitarists for several reasons. First, it was cheaper than other distortions available at the time. Second, it allowed guitarists to play single notes or chords with the same clarity of sound. Though it was originally offered at the price of $39.95, or in kit form at $26.95, early examples are now selling for upwards of $200.00. The Big Muff Pi has been used by such musicians as Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Carlos Santana, and others. Before the company's demise, the Big Muff Pi passed through several incarnations and the family was expanded to include other versions such as the Muff Fuzz, Little Muff Pi, Little Big Muff Pi, Deluxe Big Muff Pi, and the Crying Muff fuzz-wah. In the '90's, it was manufactured in Russia and re-released under the Sovtek name.

    The '70's were the peak years for the EH company. It released many products including its best-seller, the Small Stone phase shifter. According to Mike, the factory couldn't build them fast enough to keep up with sales of nearly 7,000 units a month. Almost as popular as the Small Stone was the Memory Man series of analog delay units, the first low cost echo unit available at the time. The EH company wasn't content to just produce effects, though; it also created a line of amplifiers for guitar, bass, and p.a. that were available in the consumer's choice of AC, AC/DC, or DC power. Another sideline was its line of drum machines like the DRM-15, 16, and 32 and electronic drum effects including the Rolling Thunder, the Space Drum, and the Crash Pad.

    Mike had never been content to confine his work to the United States; in 1973 or '74, the EH company was the first American business contingent to China. Then in 1979, Electro-Harmonix became one of two American companies displaying products at the Consumer Goods and Fashions Exhibition in Moscow. The EH exhibit proved very popular with the Russian people and large crowds gathered around listening to the Electro-Harmonix Work Band, which was composed mainly of EH factory employees demonstrating the products that made EH famous. New products were also demonstrated at the show, including the Mini-Synthesizers and the Guitar Synthesizer. Mike distributed copies of the Electro-Harmonix Work Band album, 50,000 EH stickers, and 20,000 copies of articles about the EH company. The high point of the trip was an invitation to a July 4 party at the home of the US Ambassador to Russia (Levine, Life).


Union Racketeering

    In 1978, Mike Matthews had been named New York State Small Business Person of the Year. While Mike was honored to be chosen for this award, it proved to be a turning point for the company. Officials of the Plastic, Moulders' and Novelty Worker's Union, Local 132 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union called Mike and told him they wanted to install a union shop for workers. Mike turned them down, but organizers from the union set up outside the factory and attempted to persuade the employees to join the union. The employees refused and eventually the organizers left. They returned three years later and accused Mike of abusing and exploiting minorities. Once more, they tried to get employee support for a union, but again they were rejected. The workers remained loyal to Mike.

    Despite the allegations of the union, Mike was a very fair employer. He followed a philosophy of promotion by merit instead of seniority in the workplace, and showed it by hiring unskilled workers at minimum wage and allowing them to advance to high paying positions. All employees had insurance, paid vacations, and received on-the-job training as they advanced in the company. They were on a first-name basis with Mike and often joked with him. He reciprocated by shutting the factory down on several occasions and taking all the employees to Long Island for a picnic, hardly examples of employee exploitation.

    Monday, August 10, 1981. As Mike Matthews attempted to enter the EH factory, he was attacked by five union toughs. Employees were offered money for lunch and asked to sign union cards. Those who refused were threatened with bodily harm and, even with the police setting up barricades, few were able to get through the union blockade and enter the building. The racketeers ambushed employees leaving work and on Wednessday, August 19, Mike closed the factory down to protect his workers. That night, TV news reports showed footage taken by hidden cameras of union racketeers threatening workers and Mike was asked to give his side of the story on the Live at 5 show.

    On Thursday, August 20, Mike and about 60 workers marched to the factory in defiance of the union and got back to work. Though the picketers eventually left and Mike, along with about 40 employees, struggled to keep the company afloat, the death knell was sounding. According to Randy Fitzgerald (1982), for five months "Matthews and about 40 employees hung on valiantly in an effort to save the company and their jobs" (pg. 113). Finally, in January of 1982, just a week after the National Labor Relations Board issued a "cease and desist" order to the union, Mike closed the doors of the Electro-Harmonix company and filed for bankruptcy. The company was without power and phones, and the employees, like Mike, were broke. Mike's financial backer was certain that EH would not survive and had pulled out earlier; other financial backing could not be found.


The Resurrections

    Mike immediately set about raising the capitol necessary to buy back his company and in March 1982, he purchased most of his assets back off the auction block. Within weeks, he was back at work and letting everyone know that EH was not one to go down so easily. The EH company was back on its feet.

    Finally, in 1984, the EH company met its demise. Ironically, it had survived union terrorism but went under due to Japanese competition. The EH company had placed orders for chips from a supplier to complete millions of dollars in product orders, but the supplier backed out and diverted all chips to Japanese manufacturers. The EH company was sold to another businessman who sold the EH products through the Broadway Computer Corporation. By 1986, the Broadway Computer Corp. was out of business and Mike regained ownership of the EH trademark, but he didn't release any more products at the time.

    His earlier experiences in Russia encouraged Mike to start a new company, the New Sensor Corporation. Although its primary business was as a supplier of vacuum tubes, it did release at least one product: the Soul Kiss, a derivative of the popular talk box effect for guitar. In 1990, he started the Sovtek company and released a Big Muff Pi II which was made in Russia. Currently the Sovtek/Electro-Harmonix line also includes a reissue of the Small Stone phase shifter and a reissue Deluxe Electric Mistress flanger with the Memory Man slated to make a reappearance in the near future. A line of Russian-made tube guitar amplifiers continues to be popular among guitarists everywhere. .

    Though the EH company has come and gone (several times, in fact), its products remain dear to the hearts and guitars of many people. In this age of digital clarity and sophisticated manufacturing, the EH company's analog products are selling as well as ever and have reached the collectible stage. With over one hundred products to its name (THE EH LIST) and millions of units sold, Electro-Harmonix will be with us for a long time.

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